An Old Story of the Omaha, People of the Plains

CHALLENGING TIMES CALL FOR STORIES. ‘SUSTAINING’ STORIES as Winnie-the-Pooh so delightfully said. Here is a sustaining story—one of the best ones I know. From my book Fawn Island, and it will be in the next one as well because I love it so much. The story comes to us from the Chickadees, bearers of good tidings.

From an old story of the Omaha, People of the plains… Long ago, in the Beginning times, the People were very young, just learning how to live upon the earth. But they learned well, learned from their relatives the animals and the plants, and found that the earth was good, full of many Teachers and wise Helpers who encouraged them to live in balance and in beauty. But this was also a time when the Evil Powers struggled fiercely to overcome the good. The Evil Ones were not pleased to see the People living happily upon the earth. They decided they would try to discourage the People, to make them lose heart, perhaps even destroy them.

And so the Evil Powers sent fierce, cold winds and snows and storms to break the People’s spirit. They sent heat and drought and disease. And times of famine. They sent floods to wash the People away. And fires that sometimes swept through the forests and over the prairies. The Evil Powers set all these things loose upon the earth to create suffering and sorrow for the People.
Finally, they said, “Surely by now we have broken the spirit of the Human Beings. It is time to send a messenger to learn how things are with them and to bring word back to us.” And so it was they called upon the chickadee—small but brave and strong—and called him into their lodge to explain his mission, then sent him on his way. When Chickadee arrived at the dwellings of the People he was invited to enter. He was treated with kindness and respect and given a place of honor by the fireside to warm himself. He was given food and drink and anointed with a smudge of fat, the sign of plenty. He was marked with a dab of red paint, a symbol of the mystery of life.

After these ceremonies and marks of respect, the People waited and listened patiently to learn why their little guest had come. When Chickadee had explained his mission, his hosts decided to hold the council to formulate their reply. “Wait here, Little Brother,” they said, “and we will return with our answer.”

When the People returned, this is what they said; “Return to the Evil Powers, Little Brother. Tell them that the Human Beings are still alive and hopeful and ever will be; that the People will not be broken by discouragement, nor defeated by storms or stress or sickness, nor vanquished by hunger nor destroyed by hardship. Tell them that Human Beings will always live upon the earth, that we will remember the goodness of life, and that the world is filled with beauty.”

So this is the message that Chickadee brought back to the Evil Ones. And it is the message that chickadees everywhere have proclaimed ever since, from firs and pines and cottonwoods and cedars, in winter and summer, fall and spring, in a blizzard and in drought. And it is why, the ancient story says, that forever after, to hear a chickadee is to feel a little braver, a little stronger, and to feel a smile upon your face.

(Pen & ink drawing, D.W.)

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